When I was 14, my mother bought me a book called A Year of Beauty and Health. Boy, did she regret it. That year, no one else in the Patterson household saw much of the bathroom. They didn't see much of the kitchen either, as I eschewed my mother's Smash and Chunky Chicken for sprouted seeds, nut cutlets and carrots. Vidal Sassoon and his glowing wife, Beverly, thought you should start the day with hot water and lemon. You should dry-brush your skin. You should jog. And where they led, I followed. Sporadically, but I tried. What was good enough in a mansion in California was good enough in a modern box in Guildford.
And so, an addiction was born. In a corner of my study, behind the filing cabinet and the printer, there's a secret bookshelf. Feel Fabulous Forever. You Can Heal Your Life. Awaken the Giant Within. 48 Hours to a Healthier Life. Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay. Stop the Insanity! Happiness Now! Don't you just love those exclamation marks? Well, maybe you don't, but I do. I love the perkiness. I love the confidence. I love the lack of ambiguity. Would you buy a book called Life is Difficult and Stressful and Sometimes Miserable and Hard Work and You Can Expect Moments of Happiness But Anything Else is Just Unrealistic and There Are No Easy Answers? Nor would I.
Which is why, when I was stopped on the street on Thursday by a man with a microphone and asked if I ever read a self-help book, I cheerfully replied that I'd read hundreds. And then thought "oh dear". And then thought "oh dear" again when someone emailed me to say was it me they'd just seen on The One Show? Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Two minutes of fame (well, about 10 seconds actually) for being a self-help addict. I might as well have gone straight for Jerry Springer.
The reason The One Show was talking about self-help books was, I imagine, because a psychologist called Richard Wiseman has just written a self-help book called 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, which argues that self-help books don't work. Yes, having your cake and your skinny thighs too, but the man used to be a magician and is used to sleights of hand. In this, of course, he's like the author of every other self-help book. These guys never write just one book. If Mars and Venus solved the problems of the sexes, you couldn't have Mars and Venus in the Bedroom or On a Date, or Raking it in in Expensive and Embarrassing Seminars. Does this stuff work? Of course it doesn't bloody work! Haven't you read How to Hook People In with a Snappy Title You Can Turn into a Franchise?
I don't know why anyone else reads these books, but I can tell you why I do. As an adult, my reading life -- sometimes more vivid than my real life =- has been divided between the daily trawl through the newspapers (war, recession, disasters, misery, comment on the misery, comment on the comment) and books for my next deadline. These books - sometimes novels, sometimes memoir, sometimes poetry - are attempts to capture what it's like to be alive on this planet, which they sometimes do badly and sometimes well. They aspire, in Keats's words, to beauty and truth.
But sometimes you don't want truth, and sometimes you don't even want beauty. What you want is a nice cup of coffee and a nice piece of cake, and a soothing voice telling you that it will all just be fine. It will all just be fine, if you take the following steps, which they're about to outline in reassuringly bossy, reassuringly upbeat, reassuringly simple prose. You're a bit tired of wrenching yourself from under the duvet, and ploughing through your work, and cooking, and running your home, and paying your bills, and making decisions and holding it all together. But now, for a couple of hours, you can hand over to someone else. And all you have to do is carry out the following exercises.
Which, of course, you don't, because the last thing you need is any more bloody work. You don't want work. What you want is magic, or the illusion of magic, the magic of that title that promised you Instant Confidence or that you could Change Your Life In Seven Days. Seven days? You've only got two hours! If other people get their pick-me-ups from bread and wine, or holy cows, or bowing towards Mecca, or (as I saw in a Shia mosque in Damascus the other day, in a crowd of women that nearly knocked me over) clawing at shrines, why shouldn't you? You're only human! Humankind cannot bear too much reality, said Eliot, and sometimes it needs a break. Or a nice rom com, or an action movie, or a Mills & Boon.
You don't watch Superman and expect to save the world. You don't read Unlimited Power and expect to rule it. And you don't, unless you're a nutcase (or Noel Edmonds), expect your life to be sorted out with a bit of "cosmic ordering". Let's be clear. This stuff is fiction. It's fantasy. It's romance. And, quite a lot of the time, it's fun.